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SCREENWASH SPECIAL – ITV DRAMA REVIEWS

SCREENWASH SPECIAL – ITV DRAMA

Of late I have been theming or focussing my viewing in certain directions. The last few months I decided to watch more ITV dramas. Historically ITV have arguably suffered in comparison to BBC dramas, and most certainly the big budget HBO, FOX and SHOWTIME programmes from the United States.

So, I thought I would check a few out and see if they are still the safe and formulaic ITV dramas I have seen in the past. Well, I would say, while adhering to certain genre conventions, notably in regard to cop stories and “true story” biopics, the writing, direction and acting is of an excellent standard. Here are some bitesize reviews.

**CONTAINS SPOILERS**

 

BROADCHURCH (2013 – 2015) Seasons 1 & 2 – ITV ENCORE

This terrific police procedural drama begins with the death of a young boy and the subsequent police investigation, plus the impact this has on his family and coastal community of Broadchurch. The first season is first and foremost a terrific “whodunit” as various members of the town are all plausible suspects. Moreover, the brilliant acting duo of Olivia Colman and David Tennant spark off each other throughout the investigation. Writer Chris Chibnall deals expertly with the emotions too as the family – including Jodie Whitaker as the mother of the tragic child – are put through the wringer by the crime. The second season is almost as gripping as the child killer faces trial and Tennant’s character obsessively investigates a historical crime which blotted his career. Overall, it is an excellent drama with many twists and a superb ensemble cast of British actors. (Mark: 9 out of 11)

CHASING SHADOWS (2014)Season 1 – ITV ENCORE

Reece Shearsmith is one of my favourite actors and I have loved his work ever since the grotesque comedy genius of The League of Gentlemen. Here he shows his range as a socially awkward but exceptionally determined Detective searching for long-lost missing people. Like Broadchurch it’s another Dr Who cast reunion as Noel Clarke and Alex Kingston also co-star in a decent by-the-numbers cop show.   (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)  

 

CILLA (2014)Season 1 – ITV ENCORE

While there is an element of tragedy in regard to uber-manager Brian Epstein’s tragic death, this biopic of the early life of Priscilla White and her rise to stardom is pretty tame and fluffy. Still, Sheridan Smith is brilliant as the young songbird who would hit the top of charts with a series of late sixties ballads. The evocation of working class Liverpool and bands such as The Beatles is well played and the songs are belted out with a passion by the very likeable Smith. (Mark: 7 out of 11)

IN PLAIN SIGHT (2016) Season 1 – ITV ENCORE

This is a very compelling 1950s set drama which tells the story of heinous Scottish serial-killer Peter Manuel. It benefits from an exceptionally good performance from Martin Compston as the devious killer; and also by Douglas Henshall as the Detective trying to catch him. Overall, a good drama which had me gripped throughout. (Mark: 8 out of 11)

JEKYLL & HYDE (2015) Season 1 – ITV ENCORE

I really enjoyed this updating of the old Robert Louis Stevenson monster classic. Created by Charlie Higson it was over-the-top and frankly loopy at times with some occasional bad acting thrown in. In going for a 1930s-period-Bond-meets-Dr-Who-meets-Hammer-horror-mash-up it wasn’t always successful but overall it was fun entertainment.  The cast all seemed like they were having fun and Amelia Bullimore, Enzo Cilenti, Natasha O’Keeffe, Richard E Grant were standouts while Tom Bateman was okay in the lead monster/man dual role. It’s just a damned shame the show got cancelled on a bloody suspenseful cliff-hanger. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)

LUCAN (2013) Season 1 – ITV ENCORE

ITV love a “true” story or crime stories based on real events and at the forefront of many of those are the excellent writer Jeff Pope. As Head of Factual Drama at ITV he has written and produced many fine TV programmes and this biopic of the infamous “Lucky” Lord Lucan case is also very good.  Rory Kinnear is an impressive brooding presence as Lucan and Catherine McCormack also excels as his abused wife. We may never know what happened to Lucan but this drama attempts to shed some light on the ill-fated events from 1970s British society. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)

MRS BIGGS (2012) Season 1 – ITV ENCORE

Another narrative based on true events focusses on the 1960s Great Train Robbery and its aftermath from the perspective of Ronnie Biggs’ wife Charmian. Sheridan Smith is astounding as the long-suffering wife partner of Daniel Mays’ Ronnie. The acting all-round and writing are excellent as we find Charmian essentially falling big for the wrong guy. Her determination and commitment to Biggs was incredibly naïve yet admirable as she carried herself and her kids to Australia and Brazil in order to keep the family together. At no time does it glamorise the crimes as Smith and Mays prove an unlikely but testament to the power of love and the lengths one may go to because of it. (Mark: 9 out of 11)

SAFE HOUSE (2012) Season 1 – NETFLIX

Christopher Eccleston, who is always reliable, stars as a retired cop who employs his Lake District property as a “safe house” for witness protection. The vistas are beautiful and the suspense is often palpable in this well written drama by Michael Crompton.  Paterson Joseph provides excellent support as Eccleston’s former boss but the highlight of the show is under-rated British actor Peter Ferdinando, who portrays an obsessive criminal with sinister verve and pathos. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)

SHETLAND (2013) – Season 1 – NETFLIX

Another detective show starring the impressive Scottish actor Douglas Henshall. This one feels old-fashioned but the stark contemporary Scottish settings work in its favour and interestingly enough it is an ITV produced show FOR the BBC.  The characters are believable and Henshall’s police team are down-to-earth and likeable. Overall, the writing is pretty good with some gripping storylines while the slower pace adds to the drama and atmosphere. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)

THE WIDOWER (2014) – Season 1 – NETFLIX

Reece Shearsmith stars again but as a weird sociopathic wife-murderer based on a real-life case. His modus operandi was to finagle himself deceitfully into women’s lives and then use their wealth to clear his debts. Sheridan Smith pops up in the first episode but Shearsmith’s Malcolm Webster later moves abroad to New Zealand to prey on other victims. Webster is an everyday monster and his actions defy belief that there would be someone so heinous; and Shearsmith gives a chilling performance. (Mark: 8 out of 11)

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MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #8 – LENNY ABRAHAMSON by PAUL LAIGHT

MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #8 – LENNY ABRAHAMSON

Bit of a change up for this blog concept as my prior seven articles have been given over to praising actors but I thought: why not praise filmmakers too? In this instance I have, of late, been blown away by the brilliance of the director Lenny Abrahamson. He is an Irish film artist who has made FIVE films; and they are ALL, in their own way, little masterpieces. Working within the socio-realist and humanist style he is drawn to characters that either live on the outskirts of society or through their actions or personalities are pushed away by the world. His films are small in scale but massive in heart. Even the most microscopic event ripples with emotion in Abrahamson’s work as he focusses on those rejected or imprisoned by patriarchal and capitalist society.

Abrahamson’s films imbue the same emotional energy of the neo-realism and social realism genres. His authorial style and themes also evoke the work of: Vittorio DeSica, Alan Clarke, Karel Reisz, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. He has a subtle documentary style as his work represents the human condition in all its glorious failures. Most of all the characters in all his films, whatever their situation, are tremendously empathetic and Abrahamson’s power as a storyteller is to make us feel the pain, despair and joy they feel. He’s been nominated for a Best Director Oscar for the incredible film Room (2015) and I think he deserves to win it. Not just for Room but for ALL the films he has made!

**CONTAINS SPOILERS**

 ADAM AND PAUL (2004)  

This black comedy about two junkies trying to get a hit manages to be both hilarious and sad simultaneously. It’s set over the course of twenty-four hours as our eponymous anti-heroes begin the day surrounded by a bleak landscape with no idea where they are. All they want is a fix and trudge from one estranged encounter to another attempting to avoid the law and various Dublin lunatics. They are pathetic creatures but their plight is played for dark laughs notably in the shoplifting scene and their encounter with the Bulgarian guy on the bench.

While they are at times loathsome the humour in the script (written by Mark O’Halloran who played Adam), terrific direction and performances really drag us into these two lowlife’s rotten existence. They are trapped by their own addiction and live moment to moment; with fate and chance buffering them from one crazy episode to another. This is a great feature debut from Abrahamson which shows even the most hopeless side of humanity can be tinged with humour.

GARAGE (2007)

I caught this one of Film Four a few years ago. I thought I’d watch ten minutes and go to sleep but 90 minutes later I was transfixed by a very simple but heart-breaking character study. It concerns Josie – portrayed by Father Ted actor Pat Shortt – and his lonely existence as a simple garage attendant in an Irish rural village. Josie is, one may argue autistic in some way, or at least showing evidence of learning difficulties.  However, he is hard-working, pleasant and harmless enough. While he suffers ribbing and derision from some townsfolk he laughs it off mainly.

The film moves slowly establishing real empathy for this simple man and symbolises his outside status by comparing him to a horse he has befriended which is tied up alone in the field. Then, in an act of friendship towards a teenage boy working with him, Josie unravels his humble life causing the town and law to turn against him. The only thing Josie is guilty of is naivety really and the tragedy of the final act is very potent. Abrahamson, writer Mark O’Halloran and the brilliant Pat Shortt deliver a masterclass in understated human drama about the little guy who would never harm anyone but is turned away for one mistake.

WHAT RICHARD DID (2012)

Abrahamson’s third film is different from his first two inasmuch as he shifts focus from the lower or working classes of Ireland to a financially better-off protagonist. However, the conflict is still very powerful despite the privileged nature of the character. Indeed, Richard Karlsen is a young, handsome, middle-class, rugby-playing lad with a very good future ahead of him. That is until one fateful night when a drunken mistake leads to tragedy and a moral dilemma for Richard and his father (Lars Mikkelsen) to deal with. The film asks us the important question: what would you do if you committed a crime? Would you come forward and admit guilt or try and get away with it?

It’s a film not necessarily just about what Richard did; but more about what he, his friends and subsequently his father do NOT do. I do not want to give away Richard’s actions but similar to Garage he makes a tragic choice, although the outcome is far more fatal than Josie’s naïve gesture. The impact of Richard’s dilemma is heightened by his abandonment and separation from his father, friends and the wider community. Like many of Abrahamson’s characters Richard – portrayed superbly by Jack Reynor – ultimately ends up alone and the film stands as a critique of patriarchy, while examining the nature of consequences and the overpowering shock of guilt.

FRANK (2014)

I used to listen to Frank Sidebottom (AKA Chris Sievey) on the John Peel sessions when I was a teenager and while baffled by this strange entertainer, I always enjoyed the alternative nature and humour of his music. Of course I was also intrigued by the fact this eccentric Northerner was pictured in the NME and Melody Maker wearing a papier mache head on. So, in truth a film about this character interested me somewhat but I just thought it may be weird for weird sake. However, Abrahamson, once again, has crafted – from a script by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan – a tremendously odd yet moving character study inspired by Frank Sidebottom.

The story focusses on Jon (Domnhall Gleeson) and his encounters with Frank’s experimental rock band, as he attempts to apply order to a chaotic creative process. In the subtext however, it’s also a moving study of mental illness, and how during the highs and lows of manic depression creativity can flourish. Of course, this doesn’t always transfer, as Jon discovers, to commercial success and ultimately the band like Frank self-implode to obscurity. Scene after scene of weird and wonderful events occur throughout leading to a very poignant reveal of Frank’s face when the mask finally comes off. The final scene is a revelation as the band play together alone once again. Here the majestic Fassbender, as Frank, rips out our heartstrings happy just to play music again with his band.

ROOM (2015)

Room is an amazing film. Probably the best and most moving I have seen for a long time. It concerns Joy (the incredible Brie Larson) and her young son Jack (stunning Jacob Tremblay) who have been abducted and trapped in a shed by a nefarious kidnapper referred only as “Old Nick”.   The film is presented from the innocent boy’s perspective and the pathos and empathy I felt throughout was both touching and heart breaking. What the writer’s premise does and filmmakers do is make you care about the characters immediately making every scene so suspenseful and soulful. If you are captured by stories about proper characters trying to survive dire events then it’s a must see.

These are characters who have been physically and emotionally imprisoned by a masculine world and are attempting to gain freedom. The way Joy protects her son from Old Nick brought a lump to the throat. Moreover, the escape scene with Jack playing dead had my heart beating frenetically. The budget was low at $6 million yet director Lenny Abrahamson, his brilliant cast and writer Emma Donoghue have created a masterpiece in emotional storytelling. Ultimately, it’s a film not just about isolation, abandonment and the horror of humanity; but also the unbridled love a mother has for their child and child for their mother. Right up to the final gut-wrenching scene is a truly stunning film which will linger in the memory for some time to come.